The Fountain in Kyoto

I’m always – in my head, anyway- planning my next travel adventure. The first question is whether I’ll travel solo, or try to work with the busy schedules of others. Sometimes travel alone is the best ‘medicine’ for the soul. Sometimes it’s just a lot easier on the nerves.

Travelers know that one of the tried-and-true tests of how real and how deep a friendship or relationship is, is to take a trip together. It doesn’t have to be long, but it does need to include a few stressors typical of travel:  adhering to timetables (flights and trains, for example); being able to pack well; generic discomforts such as missed connections; struggling with a new currency or language; jet lag; digestive upsets; environmental factors (heat, bugs, rain, traffic) and the potential for physical exhaustion and frayed nerves.

No matter how much enthusiasm for the trip there is from the get-go, no matter how beautiful or exciting the itinerary, fundamental personality differences will emerge on a small, or grand scale. How people cope with stress in day-to-day life is magnified tenfold during travel. I can usually spot those that are headed for trouble, even in the airport. They’re the couple who’s already bickering about grabbing food before getting on the plane. One suggests a quick snack from the Au Bon Pain kiosk; the other wants a sit-down, full-dining experience at Texas Barbecue. ‘Boarding’ is in 35 minutes. Guaranteed: the barbecue will end up being To Go, with more angst ahead when the Styrofoam pops open on the crowded plane.

I’ve traveled a lot, domestically and internationally, and I still learn things about myself in the midst of new places and situations. Some of my less than “stellar” moments have been during travel – I’ve overlooked some important detail or chosen a really bad hotel (bad, as in Bug-bad). Solo travelers can suck it up and learn, no one to complain to, or to blame for not packing the correct adapter. But traveling in the company of someone else requires patience, compassion, diplomacy and sometimes earplugs and a mini-pharmacy.

Nowadays, I’m much more circumspect and even outspoken, when need be, when someone suggests taking a trip together. If the travel is proposed for Spring, for example, and we’re talking about it a year in advance, I’m going to make sure I pay more attention to how my friend deals with change, uncertainty, and pressure overall. It’s my own little ‘gauntlet’ of trial-beforehand: maybe a three day or weeklong adventure somewhere. This may seem petty and strange, but a poor-fit with a traveling companion can can ruin the entire experience, and friendships too.

My Kyoto Fountain memory is seared into my brain, never to be forgotten, as a lesson-learned about traveling with others. Japan is, for me, a culture-shock experience of epic proportions. Tokyo and Osaka vibrate with intensity, novelty and situations pushing me far out of my comfort zone (in a good way). Kyoto, on the other hand, is beautiful and ethereal; wonderfully quiet in its lush, green antiquity. I was traveling with two other people who were clearly in awe, as I was, of Kyoto. On the day of our visit, a large bus of Japanese tourists converged on the same shrine as we were making our way to. They moved en masse, a blur of tennis shoes, matching white shirts, and cameras, talking animatedly, moving quickly toward a specific area of the shrine. Luckily, there happened to be an English-speaking guide with another, smaller group that explained what the excitement was about.

As we inched closer (my curiosity was now in control, so that I had to push my way through a wall of people jostling one another) to the shrine, I saw what the guide explained was an ancient, sacred and magical fountain. The water was trickling down a fairly large outcropping of rock covered with dark green moss. There were three separate fountains, each stream of water separated by about 18 inches of rock. At the bottom of each stream was a little recessed area, a small oblong pool, created – I guessed – my the 1,000+ years this fountain had worked its magic on the stone. The Japanese tourists had brought little expandable cups and they were slurping up the water from each small stream:  1 – 2 – 3, in order. I asked the guide “What gives?” and she told me that each small spring had a name: Wisdom, Beauty and Longevity. Apparently, the Japanese were in full-acceptance of the powers inherent in this water, but I was done being pushed and stepped-on and so started to turn away. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of my friends dash through the huddle in front of the pool and dip her hand in the fountain. She then stopped the flow of each little spring with her hand, drinking the water from all three with absolute glee. It was one of those slow-motion moments when you wish you had super-powers. If I had, I would have extended my rubber super-arm and grabbed my friend full-body, away from the fountain. But it was too late. The Japanese tourists stopped talking. They looked at my friend as though she were a being from another planet; then, they looked down or away. The Japanese are extremely discreet. Without saying anything, they’d made their feelings known about my friend’s behavior.

About three days later, we were now in Egypt. We had an early morning visit to a temple planned, but the friend who’d done the fountain dive hadn’t come down to breakfast. My other friend went up to her room to find our companion righteously (not using that word as in ‘just punishment’ for her fountain faux-pas) ill. She’d been in intestinal distress ( been there, done that horrible gig) all night and had a high fever. Of course, the hotel called a doctor immediately, samples were taken, and amoebic dysentery was the diagnosis. Her illness last through another country, then into Malaysia, and then turned into a kind of emotional paralysis:  she wanted to go home, immediately, and she wanted complete agreement on aborting the rest of the trip.

Needless to say, things became a bit strained at that point. Sitting in the historic Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore…the 20-foot palms surrounding us in the green and white décor, the slow ‘swoosh’ of the ceiling fans moving the damp air only slightly…my ‘healthy’ companion and I discussed what to do. She confided, being able to speak and understand more than a little Japanese (which she hadn’t really shared until now), that our friend had invited some kind of bad ju-ju from the fountain, according to the Japanese onlookers. Best-case scenario, this meant, “No Beauty, Wisdom or Longevity for you!” (Thank you, Seinfeld.) It would be a stretch to assume that her parasitic invasion was The Fountain’s Revenge. We’ll never know. But the cautionary tale is still told among my friends and fellow travelers.

Raffles, Singapore. A bygone era still thrives!

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